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Romantic Consumerism and Travel

June 3, 2017

In the personal finance world, it’s common to prioritize spending money on experiences, and travel tops the list of splurges for many. This is something many young people, myself included, place a high value on.  Even with a frugal travel style, traveling to far off destinations is usually a significant and unnecessary expense.

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I never questioned my desire to experience different cultures, to try new things, and to broaden my horizons. But, why do so many of us believe that is valuable? It feels like a deep personal preference or even some sort of truth of humanity, but when you compare this ideal to historical values, it is clear that it is part of modern romantic culture. I’m reading this book, and these paragraphs reminded me how much culture shapes our preferences, even when they feel very personal.

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The most cherished desires of present-day Westerners are shaped by romantic, nationalist, capitalist and humanist myths that have been around for centuries. […] Even what people take to be their most personal desires are usually programmed […]

Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many di􀊃erent experiences as we can. We must open ourselves to a wide Spectrum of emotions; we must sample various kinds of relationships; we must try different 􀊃cuisines; we must learn to appreciate di􀊃erent styles of music. One of the best ways to do all that is to break free from our daily routine, leave behind our familiar setting, and go travelling in distant lands, where we can ‘experience’ the culture, the smells, the tastes and the norms of other people. We hear again and again the romantic myths about ‘how a new experience opened my eyes and changed my life’. […]

The tourism industry does not sell 􀉻flight tickets and hotel bedrooms. It sells experiences. Paris is not a city, nor India a country – they are both experiences, the consumption of which is supposed to widen our horizons, full our human potential, and make us happier. […] The trip is not a reaction of some independent desire, but rather of an ardent belief in the myths of romantic consumerism.

The book goes on to state how odd this belief would seem to an ancient Egyptian, who used their wealth and power to build pyramids. They would find it very odd to travel to a far flung land to see the culture. The book also points out most humans still build temples with their power and money, but the size, shape, and form of them vary between places and times.

Do you value travel? If so, what are some of the reasons it is important to you? If not, why not?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2017 11:58 am

    I don’t think everyone needs to travel. But I do think some people genuinely do get a tremendous amount of joy and experience out of travel. I’ve done a lot of travel on the cheap (backpacking, hostels, home exchanges, etc) and the best experiences can be in free museums, buying a $2 gelato, doing a free home exchange and becoming lifelong friends with people from another country. Travel can build ties between people, cultures, and help others appreciate differences that can create empathy for others. My sharpest memories are also of travel. The day-to-day blurs, but I remember well the first time I walked into the Louvre.

    • June 11, 2017 4:23 pm

      I do get joy and see value in travel, but I never really thought about how much of that is culturally influenced. You can meet people who haven’t traveled more than 30 miles from home, and it isn’t always because they can’t. They often don’t see value in it. (although a guess is that those two things are often related)

      Travel on the cheap works best when you have time to spare, since much of the cost (at least for US based travelers) is getting to your destination and back. (And lodging, but you can cheap out a bit there.) Or you can save with points if you do credit card churning, but you often have to meet minimum spend requirements.

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